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Congratulating Everyone

by Caitlin Huey-Burns
Dec 24, 2009

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Consistency matters — and when listeners don't hear it, they make sure to let this office know.

Talk of the Nation host Neal Conan interviewed two advocates for each side of the gay marriage debate on Dec. 16. First up was Marc Mutty, the former chair of Stand for Marriage in Maine. Mutty had successfully crafted a referendum to repeal the gay marriage bill in Maine.

At the end of the interview, Conan thanked Mutty and offered his congratulations on passing the referendum. "Marc Mutty, belated congratulations, and nice of you to be with us today," said Conan.

This disturbed some listeners.

"I am horrified that the host would congratulate the head of the anti-gay marriage campaign on their defeat of gay marriage!" wrote Lana Landon of St. Louis, MO. "I am appalled at that expression of support for a particular side of an issue. It is a slap in the face to those of us who believe in equality."

Conan says he didn't mean it that way.

"I make it a habit to congratulate guests who win things...prizes, elections, and in this case a referendum," said Conan. "If it's universal, it should not suggest endorsement of a candidate or an issue. I also habitually wish candidates (and operatives for candidates and/or issues) good luck before elections. To not do so in this case, I thought, would stick out and might be interpreted as opprobrium."

But Conan did not extend his congratulations to Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, who celebrated when the Washington D.C. city council voted to approve same-sex marriage on Dec. 15.

Tuesday NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard appeared on Talk of the Nation and brought this to Conan's attention. And he apologized.

"It is my policy, generally, when people are involved in campaigns or referenda or they win a prize or something, I say congratulations, and I should be more consistent is the answer," said Conan. "Point taken."

Shepard also later raised a broader question of whether Conan or any NPR host or journalist should routinely congratulate guests who have won victories in controversies.

Conan said he does this because they are guests and it's polite.

"Listeners know they are on live, and it seems to me impolite for any host not to acknowledge recent success, or to wish them luck when appropriate," he said via email. "It's the same reason I make a point (no not always consistent, but time sometimes runs out) to welcome every guest, and say goodbye."

Shepard said she doesn't have a problem with Conan congratulating guests as long as he treats each guest the same.

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